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Trumpism and the Ugly Side of American Life—Walter Moss

Six years ago after a trip to Las Vegas and some of our western National Parks, I wrote at Hollywood Progressive that the Las Vegas “Strip and the Parks symbolized two sides of our American heritage and culture–the Strip, the pursuit of monetary gain and pleasure which is often linked with our capitalism and consumer culture; the Parks, our struggle to arrive at a higher common good, which I associate with progressivism.”

The crude emergence during the last year of Donald Trump from just another glitzy celebrity to now the most powerful person in our country (and Time’s person of the year) represents a victory (temporary, I hope) of the dark Vegas-Strip aspect of our culture over the more noble, progressive National-Parks side.

The crude emergence during the last year of Donald Trump from just another glitzy celebrity to now the most powerful person in our country represents a victory of the dark Vegas-Strip aspect of our culture over the more noble, progressive National-Parks side.

In my piece six years ago, I wrote of the Strip’s casinos, taking in money and dispensing alcohol, one of them advertising that it “elevates the topless show to that of an aesthetic experience”; the Strip’s “ersatz structures” such as an Eifel Tower, a Statue of Liberty, an Egyptian pyramid, and the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino’s kitsch Venetian canals and gondolas, and inside even a fake sky.

If you were pressed to name one individual who most personifies the Strip’s image and money-making values it would be the man whose name is plastered on the nearby Trump International Hotel, just off the Strip. According to a 2015 Business Insider article, “Trump’s [New York] penthouse has a gold-and diamond-covered door, an indoor fountain, a painted ceiling, and an ornate chandelier.” “When Trump gets tired of his cosseted New York abode, he hops on his $100 million Boeing 757 and jets to one of his other mansions.” “The jet’s seat belts are plated in gold.” In 2015, he also “spent a reported $750,000 on the redesign” of a Trump helicopter, which includes plenty of 24-karat gold plating.” “When he’s not in the air, Trump motors around in his fleet of luxury cars.” Ersatz, kitsch, ostentatious, vulgar, poor taste—it is not much of a stretch to consider Trumpian a synonym for any of them.

In contrast to the ersatz Vegas-Strip world and that of Trump, we have that of Yosemite, the other National Parks, and their champion John Muir. Six years ago I quoted the following words of his, written in 1908:

“For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed . . . in our magnificent National parks–- the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc.–-Nature’s own wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers,–-mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.”

I also pointed to American writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman who personified a similar appreciation as Muir’s and had already expressed it in their writings. And I quoted historian Henry Steele Commager, who in 1950 wrote:

Who, in the half century from Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt, celebrated business enterprise or the acquisitive society . . . ? Almost all the major writers were critical of those standards, or contemptuous of them…Most authors portrayed an economic system disorderly and ruthless, wasteful and inhuman, unjust alike to workingmen, investors, and consumers, politically corrupt and morally corrupting.” These writers, especially the novelists, “exposed the inequities of business, romanticized labor, lamented the slums, and denounced corruption.” The literature of the 1920s, reflected “aversion to Mammon… distaste for the standards of the market place and the country club,” and “hatred of vulgarity.” Writings of the 1930s, after the Depression had struck, “pulsed with anger and pity—anger against an economy that wasted the resources, paralyzed the energies, and corrupted the spirits of the people, pity for the victims of that economy.” Even in what remained of the first half century, even with victory in World War II, very few novelists revised “the judgment which had been passed on the acquisitive society…The novelists remained irreconcilable.”

Many of these American writers shared the view of the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who wrote in his Culture and Anarchy (1882) that culture should draw us “ever nearer to a sense of what is indeed beautiful, graceful, and becoming” and help us to appreciate such higher things. Arnold and many other writers thought that high culture could be an alternative and corrective to the values and manners that the Industrial Revolution and laissez-faire capitalism had introduced into English society.

The U.S. twentieth-century progressives also believed that our economic system had to be subjected to a higher goal, furthering the common good. Besides the writers mentioned and the progressives, various other Americans such as Abraham Lincoln, his biographer the poet Carl Sandburg (a socialist in his youth), and Martin Luther King, Jr. reflected an American vision far different than that glitzing from the Vegas Strip and Trump. (The 1950s Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson said that Sandburg “is the one living man whose work and whose life epitomize the American dream.”)

During the Trump presidency, we will constantly need to be mindful of this better vision. But it will not be easy. In her The Nation article “All TV Will Be Trump TV,” Leslie Savan wrote the following.

Come the next presidency, Trump TV will, in effect, be on all channels all the time. . . . Nearly all news will revolve around Trump, more even than it already does. Syria and immigration, police violence and school vouchers, hate crimes, sex crimes, terrorism, gossip, Social Security—all will reflect aspects of Trump’s brain. His personality will saturate the fabric of the media far more deeply than Obama’s, W’s, or Bubba’s ever did.

Donald Trump’s unique relationship to the media has often been noted. He is both its creature—tabloid cover model, star of The Apprentice, cable news and Twitter addict—and a master media manipulator. But now he’s crossed into something like a Twilight Zone plot: It’s as if television has beamed a 3-D avatar of President Trump into our dimension to rule us in its stead.

He is the culmination of everything that commercial television produces and depends upon: celebrity, a short attention span, enough dramatic conflict to reliably “deliver eyeballs” (yours) to advertisers, and the ad language of puffery. It’s understandable that some Trump voters weren’t bothered by the wild exaggerations and lies; that’s the commercial world we all grew up in.

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In The New York Times, Jim Rutenberg recognized that some hardnosed TV journalists and anchors have resisted Trumpian propaganda, but even he admitted that “too often television news, especially on cable, serves as a megaphone for politicians who use it to forward lies and propaganda while so effortlessly ignoring questions they’re supposedly there to answer.”

Although we do not yet know exactly what policies a President Trump will propose, his cabinet picks so far reaffirm what many of us thought during the presidential campaign: he will be a terrible president. In a recent Op-Ed, Charles Blow of the Times comments on some of these choices.

He has chosen a man hostile to immigrants and with a complicated—to put it mildly—history on race to be attorney general.

He has chosen a man who is anti-abortion, pro-fetal “personhood,” and anti-Obamacare to be secretary of health and human services.

He has chosen a man who has criticized paid sick-leave policies and opposes increasing the federal minimum wage to lead the Department of Labor.

He has chosen a climate change denier and anti-environmental-regulation crusader to lead the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]…

In a way, Trump seems to be trying to destroy these agencies from the inside out, the way a worm slowly devours an apple.

And Blow wrote these words even before Trump announced that he was going to nominate former Texas governor Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a department Perry once said he would eliminate. Since Blow’s column appeared, Trump has also announced Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO, as his pick for secretary of state.

In keeping with the general theme of our present essay, we should note that his choice to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, while acting as Oklahoma’s attorney general, sued to block the EPA’s Regional Haze Rule, meant to ensure clean air around National Parks.

Blow also notes that Trump is appointing some of his “big donors and fund-raisers” to “top posts.” And the columnist adds that since the election he has heard numerous expressions of “fear and anxiety about Trump and the future of the country. There is a stifling sense of discontent and foreboding and apprehension.” But Blow urges those of us who “have been on the losing side of this year’s election,” to “take heart,” to realize that we “are on the right side of history. In the final tally, courage will always defeat fear; love will always conquer hate; the beautiful diversity of America, and indeed all of humanity, will always outshine the darkness of racial enmity.”

Blow’s advice not to despair and his optimism remind us of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. “Let us not wallow in the valley of despair… Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

We need to remind ourselves constantly that the Trump era will pass—who knows, maybe even by impeachment? Or perhaps in 2021, when like Abraham Lincoln speaking in 1865 after four years of war, we may need “with malice toward none; with charity for all . . . to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Meanwhile, we need to remember a vision of America that is contrary to the Trumpian one. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will no doubt help us do so, as, we hope, will responsible journalists; and the decency of President Obama (and Michelle) and all the positive aspects of his administration will not be forgotten. Voices from the past like that of Sandburg, who reminded us that money cannot buy “love, personality, freedom, immortality, silence, [and] peace,” will be other aids. Another writer (and conservationist) Wallace Stegner wrote that the National Parks “are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

Yes, we need to remember that best of our history and traditions, those elements that honor beauty, truth and goodness, those that are true to our progressive tradition. In a media awash in Trumpism, the fight to keep that vision alive will not be easy, but it is certainly necessary.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

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